R.J. Tolan never panicked when Wentworth didn’t race out of the box like most around Division III expected.
The Leopards, after all, won the ECAC Northeast last season, and were the preseason choice to win it all again this season. They indeed had a lot going for them: skill, speed, depth, motivation, you name it.
Early on however, things were a bit up and down inside this proud program. There were more nights than you’d normally expect where the result on the ice left some in and around the ECAC Northeast a bit puzzled.
“The one thing I can say for my group is we stuck together and worked every day, and they have been a pleasure to coach, they have made my life easier,” Tolan said. “Even with some of the ups and downs, we kept working, and we will keep working to the bitter end. It’s definitely not easy this year in this league. Nothing will be given to us.”
The important thing for the Leopards is that many of those struggles have been ironed out, and Wentworth is playing well at the right time. With four consecutive wins in the league, including three in a six-day span that concluded Saturday with a 4-3 overtime win over Salve Regina, WIT began the week all alone in first place with a 6-2 mark.
Things are still tight, of course. Curry and Nichols, with 10 points each, were right behind the Leopards in the conference race, and only six points separated first place from seventh place. In a rapid-fire week, where Wentworth lost to Williams on Monday, 1-0, in non-league play, the Leopards rested fast, and got right back at it, taking on Nichols on Wednesday night as the conference homestretch continued. They took a 10-8-1 overall mark into that contest.
“You kind of form an identity and some mental toughness by having that kind of scheduling; lot of games in a short time frame, that’s the kind of thing that will help us,” Tolan said. “We try to take the good and the positives out of every situation, and those games mean more work, more opportunities to get better.”
Wentworth is indeed getting there. After a frustrating stretch from Dec. 6 to Jan. 15, where WIT lost four of out of six games, the Leopards, at least in conference play, have settled in comfortably.
Senior defenseman Shaun Jameson began the week third in conference scoring with four goals and 15 points, and sophomore forward Kevin Crowe, with nine goals and 13 points, was not far behind. In net, freshman Joel Miller led the league with four wins and a 2.31 goal-against average.
As a team, in the league, it was a virtual sweep of the important categories. Wentworth led the ECAC Northeast in team offense (4.25 goals per game), team defense (2.50) and the power play (31.5 percent).
“I don’t think there’s ever a finished product,” Tolan said. “For us, you keep grinding and try to be fortunate enough to be healthy for some of these big games, which has been an issue for us. Being short — from everyday practice, to how things operate, to playing games — it can be tough. A lot of how this will be play out, in this league, this year, is who stays the healthiest.”
Either way, the Leopards are in a good position. Including Wednesday’s tilt at Nichols, four of the final six conference games will be at home, and that could be crucial in a league where the talent is so close across the board.
“I would say I’m not surprised at all,” Tolan said. “Everybody in this league worked hard and recruited hard, and all the kids are pretty good hockey players, and it shows in the standings. This is a good thing. It’s a lot more fun, going into a schedule where you know all the teams have a shot, and are looking to make a move.”
In the end, though, most of these other teams know WIT is the measuring stick. While other programs continue to build a brand and cultivate a culture, the Leopards already have both.
“I wouldn’t say the players feel the pressure to play up to the tradition here, but it is contagious,” Tolan said. “People around the school take pride in the way the kids compete and represent the program. And the players feed into that. They like to represent the people at our school, and the program’s history, the best way they can.”
It’s not an easy thing to live up to. In Tolan’s first six seasons, Wentworth finished over .500 in all but one, and he took a 100-52-11 mark into this season. Last year, as the Leopards went 21-7-1, he was named the conference Coach of the Year.
In this year’s preseason poll, Wentworth snared 62 points, including seven first-place votes. Curry, which had 48 points, was the only other school to grab a first-place marker.
“For us, in Division III, you try to instill that pride in what they’re doing,” Tolan said. “Wins, losses, a week off, a week on, a week in finals, all those kinds of things, you just want it so that they show up on time, with a smile on their face, and they work hard. That’s what we do here. And if you do that, than you can reach whatever your team’s potential is for that year.”
Pretty sound philosophy for the Leopards that’s being illustrated on the ice.